Saint Judy is the powerful true story of a determined lawyer and courageous young woman who changed the asylum laws in the United States. It strikes at the heart of the illegal immigration debate that continues to divide the country. The film does get preachy at times, but reminds the audience of our values as a great democracy. Crisp acting and stark realism shine a bright spotlight on the dire circumstances that drive the powerless to our borders.
The film opens in 2003 with Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan) and her son (Gabriel Bateman) moving to Los Angeles. A career public defender, Judy starts her legal life anew as an immigration attorney in the office of Rey Hernandez (Alfred Molina). She's plopped at her desk and pointed to a cabinet of case files. Get rid of these clients and recruit paying ones for the office. As she reviews the neglected cases, one in particular catches her attention.
A young Afghan woman, Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), had been held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a year. Judy is appalled by her treatment. The plot thickens when Asefa finally opens up to Judy about her plight. She was a schoolteacher in her Pashtun village, arrested and brutalized by the Taliban for daring to educate girls. The government prosecutor (Common) is stunned by the details of her case. But the law is clear on granting asylum to non-political prisoners. Her being terrorized as an educated woman in a foreign country does not grant legal residence in the US. Judy Wood embarks on a mission of mercy and justice to have Asefa Ashwari's case heard. Returning her to Afghanistan would be a death sentence.
Saint Judy is riveting and heartfelt. Michelle Monaghan plays Judy Wood with strength and conviction. There's a great scene where Judy tells Asefa the difference between them is that she was lucky enough to be born in America. Judy understands her plight. She is willing to risk everything in her life to fight for Asefa's rights. The script by Dmitry Portnoy puts all the cards on the table for Judy. Her cause is virtuous, but she is also inexperienced as an immigration attorney. Michelle Monaghan takes her lumps, but is tenacious in her resolve as Judy. There was too much at stake for her to be overcome by the magnitude of the case. It's a wonderful performance by an underrated actress.
The despicable practice of honor killings in conservative muslim society is addressed in the film. This is when the male members of a family kill their female relatives if they deem the women have been "dishonorable". It boggles the mind such backwards savagery exists in the twenty-first century; but this is the cold, evil undercurrent to the plot. The threats to Asefa were not only from the Taliban, but her own family. Director Sean Hanish and screenwriter Dmitry Portnoy tackle the issue of honor killings head on. Imagine if your wife, daughter, sister, or mother could be stoned to death for crimes committed against them. Saint Judy puts a face to the women subject to this tyranny, and whether it is the duty of the United States to shelter and protect.
Saint Judy is a pertinent film for the times. Judy Wood and Asefa Ashwari's struggle affected the lives of thousands of women. The vitriol surrounding immigration is at a fever pitch. It's worthwhile to turn down the rhetoric and speak honestly about the merits of the debate. Saint Judy lays it on thick at times, but is an earnest look at the right and wrong of the issue. Asefa Ashwari's right to be educated, and to pass that knowledge on to others, is fundamentally American. Saint Judy is distributed by Blue Fox Entertainment. It will open in limited release on March 1st.